It still feels perfectly normal to walk into the Circle Bar, never mind that it reopened just last weekend after a yearlong hiatus for repairs and renovation. An outpost at the fulcrum of Uptown and downtown, it’s still an alluring, atmospheric watering hole with one of the city’s more eclectic mixes of live music – and, incidentally, it’s still also one of the great spots for that rarefied New Orleans pursuit of streetcar-watching.
But take a seat at the conspicuously larger bar and immediately all the many changes made during that offline time begin to register, and they quickly add up to a big difference. The place still looks like the old Circle Bar, but it feels significantly bigger, a trick pulled off through addition by subtraction.
Walls that once hemmed in the music room have been removed, opening that space up. Out too went the old commercial kitchen hood and walk-in, holdovers from the building’s distant past as the Fleur de Lee restaurant. The bar now extends through this space, stretching to about twice its former length.
These seem like good fixes for one of the major limitations of the old Circle Bar – namely the number of people who could pack themselves around the unwieldy floor plan. But the place still has the intimacy that made it such a winner despite the fact that, back then, you might have somebody’s purse nudging against your flank for half the night as you angled for a glimpse of the band playing around the corner.
The Circle Bar is inside an old townhouse, a relic from Lee Circle’s past that looks like something carved from the 19th century and left there amid all the newer, much larger buildings. The music room is still a repurposed living room, framed by windows, and through those windows you can still see – and hear – the streetcars curving around Lee Circle. Thanks to its spot on the circle, you can sit at the bar and watch a streetcar approach through one window and then, a moment later, watch it pull away through another window across the room, all without leaving your bar stool.
Such diversions can keep you anchored for a few pints on a quiet night at the Circle Bar, though the schedule of music the place is now booking Thursdays through Sundays brings more active entertainment over each prolonged weekend (see this weekend’s schedule below).
There’s a much-welcome no-smoking policy now (the patio just outside has tables and chairs for smoke breaks), and the draft beer selection has improved with a few NOLA Brewing taps, among other American craft beers.
Some things are missing, though, most notably the old, red-glowing K&B clock that was once mounted to the ceiling in the music room. Originally a thrift store find, the piece became the symbol of the Circle Bar (and made it into an early Lynn Drury lyric). Alas, the clock was damaged during the renovations, though there’s talk at the bar that it might make a comeback.
In the meantime, plenty of other Circle Bar touchstones endure, like the old mural, unearthed during a much earlier renovation, of dandy planters toasting each other as a riverboat passes, and of course the jukebox that remains a musical playground for fans of soul, funk and old-timey country. Where else will you find Cookie & the Cupcakes on a jukebox these days?
Here is this week’s music schedule at the Circle Bar:
Thursday, 9 p.m.
Gypsy jazz/swing from Hot Club of New Orleans, an old Circle Bar regular.
Saturday, 10 p.m.
Alex McMurray, one of the city’s best singer/songwriters, playing with with Carlo Nuccio on drums, Matt Perrine on bass and Bill Malchow on guitar.
Sunday, 10 p.m.
Honky tonk country from Hillbilly Hotel.
1032 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans